Should we pay for the sins of our fathers?

August 9, 2002

American descendants of African slaves are among a growing band seeking reparation for wrongdoings committed more than a century ago. James Walvin asks whether they have a case.

I have studied the history of slavery for more than 30 years and for most of that time the question of reparations for the damage caused by slavery never entered my mind. Nor, until recently, was it a public issue. Now the subject is high on the public agenda, with a major demonstration planned for Washington on August 17 and a series of class-action cases looming in the US.

The historical facts behind the argument are clear enough. Europeans shipped millions of Africans to the Americas. There, slave labour developed key areas of the colonial economy. The consequent material benefits - profits from the slave trade and from the tropical produce cultivated by slaves - greatly enhanced the material wellbeing of the colonial and maritime powers involved.

Historians continue to debate the accountancy of this complex system, though the broad outline is clear enough. Atlantic slavery was a system that brought huge benefits to the Americas and to maritime Europe. Africa, however, was left to deal with the loss of millions of people, the culture of violence that made possible African enslavement and the consequences of widespread dislocation. Though still hard to calibrate, no one doubts the damage that slavery wrought in Africa.

Since the mid-1960s, historians have taught us a vast amount about the Atlantic slave trade, and the rise of "public history" has seen this historical awareness spread. Millions of tourists visit sites of slavery and the slave trade: museums, exhibits, plantations, slave forts. One million people a year visit George Washington's home at Mount Vernon; half a million walk round Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello, both made possible by slaves. The slave-trade wing in Liverpool's Maritime Museum - a fitting exhibit for a city that dispatched 6,000 slave-trading voyages - and the exhibit on the slave trade at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, both confront the realities of the enslaved Atlantic crossing. A similar pattern has unfolded in the West African slave forts, although the evidence is sometimes massaged for commercial purposes.

While many places refuse to confront their slaving past - dozens of privately owned US plantations do not so much as mention the black labour that brought them into being - there is a growing popular awareness of the story of slavery that has unconsciously laid the groundwork for the reparation debate.

The prototype for reparations was the compensation paid by Germany to Israel. In fact, the language of the Jewish experience has influenced the broader debate about African slavery - often inappropriately. The slave trade and slavery are often described as the "African Holocaust", ignoring the critical fact that one was genocidal, the other not. Similarly, the concept of the "African diaspora" drew on an older vernacular describing Jewish life. The adoption of "reparations" was just the latest Jewish template imported into the slavery debate.

More recently other groups have been compensated for past injustices - notably Japanese-Americans and Native Americans. But slavery is different, and here it is easy to raise objections to the demand for reparations. How and why should compensation be paid and who should pay it? Who should be compensated and in what form? Should compensation go to the descendants of slaves in the Americas - most of whom went not to North America, but to the Caribbean and Brazil - or to Africa and Africans?

The initial political impetus behind demands for reparations came from Africa, notably via the old Organisation for African Unity. In part, theirs was a case grounded in recent and current African deprivations. It is hard not to agree that something needs to be done for Africa. Debt cancellation is an obvious response, but can that be linked politically to demands for reparations? And if Africa were accorded debt cancellation, why not other countries? Moreover, these debts stem from western institutions whose rationale is to give good money after bad, often to local leaders whose corruption is legendary. Proponents of reparations need to acknowledge that African leaders have often played a role in compounding the woes of their people.

For all that, Africa cries out for special treatment. And here perhaps reparations begin to make political and moral sense. But both US and British statesmen have gone out of their way to refuse to contemplate a link between reparations and debt cancellation. To a degree this is understandable, not least because not all of Africa's mountainous problems are slave-related. But it is hard to deny the role of the West in the broader immiseration of Africa; in its exploitative political and economic relationships; in the surrogate wars that the West (and Russia) have sponsored; to say nothing of the damaging, long-term colonial structures bequeathed to much of the continent.

Perhaps most troublesome is the question of African complicity in slavery. Europeans bought the bulk of their slaves from Africans. Notwithstanding the economic pull of the European trading presence on the coast, they could not have secured such numbers of Africans without the help of other Africans. Another complexity lies in the history of the Islamic slave trade, which long predated and long out-lived the Atlantic trade. Should those Arab states whose forebears were involved in shipping Africans to Arabia now be asked for reparations? No one, to my knowledge, has suggested that Saudi Arabia be asked for reparations.

Reparations involve more than financial compensation. Apologies for the sins of the fathers loom large in the reparation debate. But Africa and African-America are not alone in seeking apologies for the past. Indeed the culture of apology has become a powerful global force in recent years, sparked most notably by apologies from Germany. The crimes and misdemeanours of the Nazi past have, understandably, brought forth a chorus of official and private apologies. Many others have been forced to join in. The Papacy has apologised for previous offences - the Inquisition, anti-Semitism and more recently, sexual abuse. Australians continue to beat their collective breast about the treatment of aboriginal peoples; the British have apologised to Ireland.

But the difficulty for former imperial powers is to know where to stop. Modern British statesmen are regularly confronted with demands for apologies when they step off an aircraft - in India, the Middle East, Africa. Correcting imperial sins involves repeated apologies all over the world by people who had nothing to do with the original offence.

In Britain's case, this has been partly prompted by a changed historical sensibility, with the shedding of the old imperial garb. But it also stems from a rapid spread of "public history", with its inevitable simplicities. Popular culture has made its own contribution: movies, novels and TV have all helped to transform - and sometimes distort - ideas about the past. Add to this the rise of new constituencies, where politicians use the grievances of the past as a tool in contemporary political argument, especially against the West, and we have a heady mix in which colonial history has come to play a volatile role.

Once marginal, if mentioned at all, slavery is now viewed as a central force in the shaping of the modern Atlantic world, including the creation of contemporary ills. When the story of slavery is run alongside sociology of black life in, say, the US, it is tempting to use it to explain modern deprivation. A similar pattern has unfolded in relation to Africa.

Yet it is easy to be dismissive, to feel that opportunists have realised the potency of slave history to strike a populist posture, and to see the impending class-action cases in the US - for reparations against companies that once used slaves - as a case of high-profile lawyers with an eye on a pot of gold.

But look at the league table of massive deprivations catalogued in the United Nation's recent 12th Human Development Report : the bottom nations are African. Look at continuing black deprivation in the US and it is tempting to trace a historical link between the West and Africa. Some of those answers may, in the end, prove costly - at least in the US if pressure groups behind the drive for reparations have their way.

Reparations form a legal and moral minefield. While an apology costs nothing, governments have set their face against it, perhaps from the fear that it might prepare the ground for legal damages. Debt cancellations could be a way forward, but who could dispute the need to launch an initiative to tackle the wretchedness on both sides of the Atlantic that mires so many descendants of slaves in such abject conditions? For all its weaknesses and ambiguities, the case for reparations is not going to disappear in a hurry.

James Walvin is professor of history at the University of York.

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